Roy Murdoch - Horsing around

4 minutes read
Posted 24 April, 2024
RoyJ 85J on one of his hacksJ MacJ at home at Lowburn

Roy, 85, on one of his hacks, Mac, at home at Lowburn

He’d have to be this region’s most legendary cowboy, movie stuntman and animal trainer and wrangler. Roy Murdoch’s rubbed shoulders with some big names in entertainment and equestrian circles, his entrepreneurial spirit and sharp eye for opportunity constantly breaking new ground.

Born in Invercargill in 1938 and educated at Southland Technical College, Roy completed a diesel mechanic’s apprenticeship before working as a supervisor for the Lake County Council in Queenstown, where he and first wife Joy married.

“I was watching a film at the Mall movie theatre with the hydraulic open-air roof, with Arthurs Point publican Fred Boylan,” Roy recalls. “We saw the shorts about horse trekking in Ireland and Fred said, ‘We could do that up behind the pub!’”

They started Moonlight Stables in 1962, buying the 780-acre (315ha) Atley Farm at Arthurs Point along with Roy’s good mate and fellow musician, famous Kiwi singer-songwriter John Hore-Grennell. “We grew all the feed for the Stables there and at times operated as many as 100 horses, running day and weekend overnight treks, people coming from all over Otago and Southland. Those were booked a year ahead.” It became one of Queenstown’s best known early tourist attractions.

The partners then bought neighbouring Ben Lomond Station in the early 1970s with Invercargill solicitor E.J.H. Preston.

Roy only trained horses with a whip - pictured here at Moonlight Stables in action in the early 1960s

“We had some skilled horsemen and top rodeo guys working for us, so we built a rodeo arena where we’d entertain large conference groups ... as many as 2000 delegates coming. They’d hire the set-up and we’d put on a mini rodeo, while O’Connell’s Hotel caterers cooked on large barbecues on site. They’d feed close to 800 people an hour.”

Entertainment was New Zealand’s best – John Hore-Grennell, 60s-star Paul Walden, and Roy. Roy’s Arthurs Point home was a regular stay for many entertainers. “Howard Morrison and I were walking home from the pub up the driveway one night and we heard Johnny Kopara inside singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ in Māori. Howard, stopped and said, ‘Woo! Woo! I’m gonna record that.’” It became one of his greatest hits.

Roy rode difficult rodeo tricks with top rodeo stars. “We always had a big bonfire and O’Connell’s band would come and play. We had two girls on little white ponies with saddlebags, riding around dishing out drinks.”

The horse-trekking was so popular they had a big lodge built on the station, runholder Mick Sargison bringing in his bulldozer to help. “It was on Crown leasehold land and the government guys said they’d freehold it if we could show a profit within three years.” Unfortunately, they couldn’t and runholder Lin Herron took over the buildings.

Roy’s horseman skills were in demand and for 30 years he spent winters on lakeside stations breaking in and shoeing horses, also on local lifestyle blocks, shearing on the side. His diesel engineering skills landed him at South Arm in the 1960s to help the Utah-based company building the Manapouri Power Station, the only one qualified in NZ compressor standards.

In the late 60s, he and Joy bought the whole Gorge Road industrial block, off Jock Boyd, for their drycleaning business and were encouraged by the council to subdivide. “I paid £1550 for the lot.” Sections were snapped up for about $2000 each, worth $20,000 to $30,000 three years later. Taylors eventually bought them out.

“One night in the late 1970s the bank manager rang me and said, ‘Your mortgage is rising a bit’.” A shocked Roy discovered with interest rates of 28% - 30% with penalties, he had a mortgage of $130k across the Stables, farm, and station. “I rang Greg Ross (agent) and said, ‘I can’t sustain this’.” They sold the Stables to Pete and Jenny McLeod in 1979 and American Ralph Brown then bought the Nugget Point site on Atley Farm.

A lifelong desire to fly was fulfilled in ‘79, when Roy passed his pilot’s licence, teaching himself the theory, and buying his own plane. He’s clocked 3000 hours, including many flying acrobatics.

Roy’s wrangled for the best of them – overseeing several hundred horses on Eco Challenge and training a similar number on Grand Traverse. He worked on celebrated NZ producer Tim Sanders’ horror flick Perfect Creature, as well as the movie White Fang for two years, wrangling animals, coaxing eels, dogs, and horses. He once clocked 31 ads back-to-back once, earning $7000 some days, and was once a ‘snail wrangler’ for Sony during an ad shoot at Lake Johnson, which was his greatest challenge. They wouldn’t budge out of their shells and slide along the reed on cue, until Roy finally tried the heat of a torch at night.

Roy and second wife of 45 years Joyce Yee-Murdoch owned The Pavilion Pub in Colac Bay where they also owned and subdivided land. Roy’s also partnered with Olympic equestrian star Mark Todd in a global horse drenching venture, but these days he’s happily settled at Lowburn on their 140-acre farm.

It’s been a good life.

From leftJ top Aussie horseman Tim TinlinJ Branches runholder Lin Herron and Roy during an enactment for the Arrowtown Centennary celebrations in the 1960s

From left, top Aussie horseman Tim Tinlin, Branches runholder Lin Herron and Roy during an enactment for the Arrowtown Centennary celebrations in the 1960s

Training horses for the French Grand Traverse race in 1988 Wed tie 40 horses together and swim them across the Shotover 1

Training horses for the French Grand Traverse race in 1988 - "We'd tie 40 horses together and swim them across the Shotover."


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